REVIEW: "The Golem and the Jinni,’’ by Helene Wecker

  • Article by: CURT SCHLEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2013 - 3:34 PM

FICTION: Two mythical characters, trapped in human form, come alive in 1899 New York.

"The Golem and the Jinni," by Helene Wecker.

The title characters of “The Golem and the Jinni” are not the book’s only magic. The story is so inventive, so elegantly written and so well constructed that it’s hard to believe this is a first novel. Clearly, otherworldly forces were involved.

The Golem is a well-known creature in Jewish lore, the most famous created out of clay by a rabbi to protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.

Here, it is fabricated by a mystic of considerable power at the behest of Otto Rotfeld, a failed Polish businessman who wants an obedient wife to take with him to the New World.

But Rotfeld dies aboard ship after waking his bride, and she finds herself in 1899 New York without any sense of past or future.

The Jinni — or, more commonly, Genie in the Western World — is Arab in background, born of fire, and typically floats invisibly above the Earth. But this jinn was trapped in a metal flask by an evil wizard and when freed, also in 1899 New York, is stuck in human form.

Both creatures are, of course, powerful. Chava, the name the golem takes on, reads your thoughts, is strong, and, like a lion who has tasted human blood, dangerous. “No golem has ever existed that did not eventually run amok,” the mystic tells Rotfeld.

Ahmad, the jinn, is also physically powerful and can insinuate himself into a person’s dreams.

But the flesh-and-blood world that author Helene Wecker (a graduate of Carleton College in Northfield) creates around them is just as magical as the creatures themselves: the rabbi who becomes Chava’s first guardian; Michael, the rabbi’s nephew who eventually marries Chava; the tinsmith who frees Ahmad from the flask, and Saleh, the ice cream-maker of Little Syria.

Wecker moves about a dozen principal characters in and out of her book with the assurance of a Russian novelist. Just when you begin to wonder what happened to Character A or B, he or she reappears in the most logical place to move the plot along.

On that point, the story is so complex and so intricately woven that it does not lend itself to summary. It would be like pulling threads from a finely crafted garment to describe the whole. But it is involving, zigging and zagging, going where least (or never) expected as these two creatures from different cultures navigate the strange place and people at the heart of this novel.

Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.

  • related content

  • Helene Wecker , author of “The Golem and the Jinni.”

  • THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI

    By: Helene Wecker.

    Publisher: Harper, 486 pages, $26.99.

    Review: Wecker mines the mysticism of two people to create a magical world out of clay and fire.

    Events: 7 p.m. June 20, Common Good Books; 2 p.m. June 23, the Bookcase of Wayzata.

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